Typical mixed crop-livestock farming in western Kenya

Typical mixed crop-livestock farming in western Kenya. Mixed crop-livestock farming systems currently produce most of the world’s meat, milk and staple crops (photo credit: ILRI/Pye-Smith).

The January 2013 issue of Animal Frontiers, the world’s premier review magazine in animal agriculture, features a series of articles on the contribution of animal agriculture to global food security.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has contributed to this series with a position paper that highlights the direct and indirect effects of livestock on food and nutrition security. The paper also considers the future prospects of mixed crop-livestock farming systems that produce most of the world’s milk, meat and staple crops.

The paper by ILRI director general Jimmy Smith and colleagues begins with a brief overview of the global challenge of food and nutrition security and the net impact of livestock on global food supply. This is followed by a review of the direct contributions of livestock to nutrition security and the indirect effects of livestock on food security.

Food security is said to exist when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. In development discourse, the term ‘food security’ is often used to emphasize the aspect of food quantity while ‘nutrition security’ captures the quality dimension.

The position paper offers a balanced analysis by exploring both the beneficial impacts (e.g. improved nutrition and health, income from the sale of animals or produce, draught power and provision of manure) and the harmful ones (e.g. zoonotic diseases, health risks from over-consumption of animal-source foods and production of greenhouse gases).

“Livestock contribute to food supply by converting low-value materials, inedible or unpalatable for people, into milk, meat, and eggs; livestock also decrease food supply by competing with people for food, especially grains fed to pigs and poultry. Currently, livestock supply 13% of energy to the world’s diet but consume one-half the world’s production of grains to do so.

However, livestock directly contribute to nutrition security. Milk, meat and eggs, the “animal-source foods,” though expensive sources of energy, are one of the best sources of high quality protein and micronutrients that are essential for normal development and good health. But poor people tend to sell rather than consume the animal-source foods that they produce.

The contribution of livestock to food, distinguished from nutrition security among the poor, is mostly indirect: sales of animals or produce, demand for which is rapidly growing, can provide cash for the purchase of staple foods, and provision of manure, draft power, and income for purchase of farm inputs can boost sustainable crop production in mixed crop-livestock systems.

Livestock have the potential to be transformative: by enhancing food and nutrition security, and providing income to pay for education and other needs, livestock can enable poor children to develop into healthy, well-educated, productive adults. The challenge is how to manage complex trade-offs to enable livestock’s positive impacts to be realized while minimizing and mitigating negative ones, including threats to the health of people and the environment.”

On the future role of mixed crop-livestock farming systems, the authors note that it is important to look into issues related to production efficiency as well as market engagement in defining how these systems are to evolve in order to remain competitive, equitable and environmentally stable while continuing to contribute to human nutrition and health.

The paper concludes:

“Many poor livestock keepers report that a key motivation for keeping livestock is to earn income so their children can attend school and, perhaps, go on to benefit from further education. By providing essential nutrients, especially in the first critical 1,000 days from conception, animal-source foods can help ensure normal physical and cognitive development.

The combined impacts of meeting nutritional needs and providing income make livestock a powerful force for the poor. Well-nourished and well-educated youngsters can grow up to be healthy young adults who are able to realize their full potential and earn higher incomes, in the process enhancing the well-being of their families, communities, and society. The impact of this on food and nutrition security at household, national, and global levels cannot be overstated and demands innovative research, development, and policy approaches.”

Read the full article here

Citation: Smith J, Sones K, Grace D, MacMillan S, Tarawali S and Herrero M. 2013. Beyond milk, meat, and eggs: Role of livestock in food and nutrition security. Animal Frontiers 3(1): 6-13.